How to complain

Think you’ve been badly treated by your bank? You could win up to £150,000 in compensation if the Financial Ombudsman Service rules in your favour.

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This new higher limit – up from £100,000 – comes into effect on 1 January next year, and is a part of a Financial Services Authority (FSA) drive to improve standards within the industry.

The new regime also involves scrapping the ‘two-stage' complaints process that some firms have used as an excuse to dismiss complaints in the first instance without properly considering them.

According to research by Consumer Focus, while three quarters of customers with a grievance against their bank make a complaint, less than a third pursue their complaints further if the initial response proves disappointing.

Peter Vicary-Smith, chief executive of consumer champion Which? said: "We've long argued that the ‘two-stage’ process was simply a way for firms to fob off legitimate complaints.

“This should put an end to consumers having to state their complaints twice, something that stops many people taking their cases further.”

What else has changed?

There is also a new requirement for one senior individual within each company to take on the responsibility for complaints handling.

Sheila Nicoll, the FSA's director of conduct policy, said: "We would rather customers were not put in a position where they had to complain, but when they do we want them to be treated fairly.

"Good complaints handling contributes to customer loyalty and should provide the opportunity for firms to put right problems in product design or sales before issues become widespread.

“But we have found major failures with the way firms handle customer complaints and have since taken enforcement action against two firms as a result of poor complaints practices."

The two companies in question are Bank of Scotland, which was fined £3.5 million on May 25 this year, and Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest, which were fined £2.8 million in April 2010.

Looking at which firms have been fined for poor complaints practice is not the only way to work out which banks, insurers and lenders are letting customers down, though.

Since 2009, the FSA has published complaints statistics that allows customers to see the volume of complaints being received by individual firms.

And in September 2010, the watchdog also started to publish data that enables customers to compare the way different firms deal with their complaints.

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How to complain

There are several ways you can ensure your complaint gets listened to. Here’s our step-by-step guide to complaining successully…

  • First complain to the company concerned – it has eight weeks to respond to you.
  • Be sure to include any reference numbers it is likely to need to pinpoint in order to resolve your problem quickly.
  • State clearly on all your correspondence that you are making a complaint.
  • Keep a copy of all letters and e-mails, and record the times and dates of any phone calls, plus the person or people you spoke to.
  • If you aren’t having much joy with customer services, it can prove more effective to email the chief executive of the business to which you want to complain directly. You can find the personal email addresses of chief executives of many of Britain’s biggest firms at the CEO email website (ceoemail.com).
  • Always stay as polite and calm as possible. Keep any letters or emails brief and to the point.
  • If you aren’t satisfied with the company’s response to your complaint, or they haven’t responded within eight weeks, you can ask the FOS to look into it on your behalf.

How can the FOS help?

Even though the FOS’s latest annual report shows that it handled more than a million enquiries and complaints from consumers during the 2010/2011 financial year, recent research indicates that just 9% of consumers contact the organisation about rejected complaints.

This is despite the fact that the FOS’s involvement results in compensation for consumers in just over half the cases it takes on.

Consequently, taking the time to elevate your complaint to this level – once you have given the firm in question eight weeks to respond – could certainly be worth your while.

The FOS weighs up both sides of a case and tells both parties what it thinks should happen next. If this fails to resolve the issue, both sides will probably have to provide further details, prior to the adjudicator in charge of the case making a decision. If either party remains unhappy, an ombudsman has the final say.

If you want the FOS to look into a complaint for you, you can either telephone 0800 023 4567 or email complaint.info@financial-ombudsman.org.uk.

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